"I will follow Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
This is a favorite quote of mine and one I try to live by. I love Christmas more than anything – even more than I love Harry Potter. My tree goes up on October 31st, I have a Christmas phone case that stays on year round, and I’ve been known to rock a Christmas mask in April. All these things help me keep Christmas in my heart year round, but the biggest piece of my Christmas heart is Washington United Church of Christ’s program, Gifts to the Manger.
Washington United Church of Christ, WUCC, is a mission outreach church located in Cincinnati, Ohio.
What does it mean to be a mission outreach church? Here are some of the ways that WUCC cares for the community of Camp Washington:
● Weekday community lunches
● Sunday morning breakfasts
● Community meals
● Homework club
● Camp Cupboard and Closet (community free store)
● Summer Camp
● Back to School Program
St. Peter’s traditionally supports the Summer Camp, Back to School Program, and my personal favorite - Gifts to the Manger. I have been volunteering at Gifts to the Manger for 14 years now, my first year when I was 12. Now I am the Youth Group Leader and find immense joy in sharing my love for WUCC with members from St. Peter’s.
Gifts to the Manger provides an opportunity for parents/guardians from the community to come and shop at no cost for gifts for their kids for Christmas. Volunteers and donors provide toys, puzzles, games, dolls, and clothing that are available for registered families to receive. Prior to 2020, the experience was set up like a store where families came to shop. Volunteers would travel to WUCC for the weekend and set up the store, organize shopping areas, make trips to buy items needed, assist parents who came to shop, and then clean it all up at the end of the weekend.
Last year and this year, due to the pandemic, the model has changed. Instead of open shopping, families provided WUCC with wish lists. Volunteers took those lists and pulled donations to provide for each family. I can promise you that myself and the Gantt family carefully inspect every bag to ensure it is filled with the best and most wanted items. Many of those wishes came to our Giving Tree at St. Peter’s and you helped provide those Gifts to the Manger!
Gifts to the Manger takes place during the Advent week of Joy. I have experienced so much Joy over my 14 years of volunteering! Here are just a few of the highlights…
● Being able to fulfill a last minute gift request for a Hannah Montana doll – the joy of helping a parent get exactly what their child wanted.
● Seeing the excitement of parents when there were Princess Tiana dolls and Fashionista dolls (dolls with different shade of brown skin and different hair textures) – being part of the joy of finding dolls that “look like my child.”
● Every year, we create a Nativity using toys in the store. Joy is seeing Elmo as Baby Jesus.
This year's Nativity for the Gifts to the Manger event.
(More highlights, continued)
● Being part of a holiday tradition from the St. Peter’s UCC community – both with specific families, the youth group, and with 2 other UCC churches that travel to WUCC for the weekend. There is joy in these relationships – especially those we only see during this special weekend.
● There is familiarity and hilarity in the sorting of gifts – like the joy of what seems to be a magical and never ending supply of green monkey underwear!
● An important task is pulling all of the donations up from the basement and setting them up in the store. Sorting and organizing is a major task. Donations have always been sorted by age and by gender – but there is joy in a new change! Starting next year, donated toys will only be sorted by age. WUCC is an Open and Affirming congregation – and this is a step towards being welcoming of all.
Hard work requires good food and it’s a tradition to have one meal at Camp Washington Chili – joy is knowing what makes Cincinnati style chili unique!
● Connecting with the parents of kids we have come to know during Summer Camp and who we see at Gifts to the Manger each Christmas is also a special joy – having an opportunity to hear how they are doing and to encourage them and express that we are proud of them.
Volunteers oranize the toys by age.
Volunteers also organize clothes.
Volunteers do their best to fulfill wish lists and place the contents in a bag for pick up.
The WUCC community holds a special place in my heart. I shop all year for WUCC and Gifts to the Manger. I find good deals on toys or clothes, making sure I always check the clearance rack for adult size L and XL, for large toys, and picking up lots of small toys. On Black Friday or Cyber Monday, I shop exclusively for teen gifts. I think about Gifts to the Manger at least once a week all year. Gifts to the Manger makes Christmas real to the families being served and also to those who are serving. And it would not be possible without your donations and support.
Stevi shows how she tetris'ed
the donations to fit in her car.
Serving at WUCC is what makes Christmas real for me – and helps me follow Christmas in my heart year round.
Stevi Cook, Youth Group Leader,
St. Peter's United Church of Christ